Back in August, I wrote a gameplan piece, talking to seven coaches for it. The list included both Gary Pinkel and Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Hopefully you've read the Pinkel part already, but with MSU coming to town, maybe the Diaz portion deserves a look, too.
"We want you to beat us left-handed because we're going to stop the one thing you do best. There's not enough time to practice all of your running plays against all of the stuff we have."
Taking away your sharpest knife is a good way to avoid getting gashed. If he can force you to adjust, he probably knows how you'll do it.
Plenty of coaches have found success with a bend-don't-break style of defense. The idea of hoping that a college offense will eventually make a mistake is sound. Twenty-year old males don't tend to go long between mistakes. But Diaz has little interest in bending.
MSU's defense hasn't been amazing this season -- the Bulldogs rank 42nd in Def. S&P+ -- but its deficiencies have some in an area that isn't much of a concern when you face Missouri: efficiency. MSU ranks only 76th in success rate. The Bulldogs are great at preventing big plays and play well when you've got a scoring chance (gulp), but you can methodically work the ball down the field ... if you're capable, anyway. Missouri hasn't been capable.
Ryan Brown (6'6, 266, Sr.) -- 21.0 tackles, 7 TFL (2.5 sacks), 3 PBU
Johnathan Calvin (6'3, 263, Jr.) -- 16.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL (1.5 sacks)
Nelson Adams (6'3, 310, Jr.) -- 10.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU
Nick James (6'5, 325, Jr.) -- 6.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL
Chris Jones (6'6, 308, Jr.) -- 20.0 tackles, 4 TFL (1.5 sacks), 1 PBU
Torrey Dale (6'6, 252, Jr.) -- 5.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL
A.J. Jefferson (6'3, 277, Jr.) -- 29.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL (4 sacks), 1 PBU, 1 FF
Will Coleman (6'5, 250, Jr.)
The preferable method of moving the ball against MSU is on the ground. The Bulldogs' front four is active (28th in Havoc Rate, with the two starting defensive ends for accounting for 18.5 TFLs), but they rank just 53rd in Rushing S&P+ and 78th in rushing success rate. You can work with that if your line is solid.
[scratches head sheepishly]
Zach Jackson (6'2, 212, Sr.) -- 22.5 tackles, 3 TFL (1 sack), 2 PBU
J.T. Gray (6'0, 196, So.) -- 29.0 tackles, 1 TFL
Richie Brown (6'2, 245, Jr.) -- 50.0 tackles, 6 TFL (3.5 sacks), 1 INT, 1 PBU
Gerri Green (6'4, 243, RSFr.) -- 27.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU
Beniquez Brown (6'1, 238, Jr.) -- 36.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL (1.5 sacks), 1 INT, 2 PBU
DeAndre Ward (6'1, 228, Jr.) -- 8.0 tackles, 1 TFL (0.5 sacks)
Because MSU gets good penetration with its defensive ends, Diaz doesn't have to attack quite as much with his LBs as he has at other points in his career. Still, projected over 13 games, Richie and Beniquez Brown are on pace for 140 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and eight passes defensed. Good enough.
In theory, Missouri seems to be a bit of a pass-first team (97th in standard downs run rate, 80th on passing downs), so MSU might choose to blitz a decent amount, which could open you up to screens and draws if the opponent is good at those.
[another sheepish look]
Tolando Cleveland (6'0, 190, Jr.) -- 22.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL (1 sack), 2 PBU
Cedric Jiles (5'10, 182, Jr.) -- 8.5 tackles, 3 PBU
Kivon Coman (6'3, 196, Jr.) -- 34.0 tackles, 2 TFL (0.5 sacks), 4 PBU
Deontay Evans (5'10, 204, Jr.) -- 22.5 tackles, 1 PBU
Brandon Bryant (5'11, 205, RSFr.) -- 29.0 tackles, 2 TFL (1.5 sacks), 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF
Mark McLaurin (6'2, 210, Fr.) -- 6.5 tackles, 3 PBU
Jamal Peters (6'2, 206, Fr.) -- 8.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1 sack), 2 PBU
Taveze Calhoun (6'1, 180, Sr.) -- 20.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU
Jamoral Graham (5'10, 173, So.) -- 14.5 tackles, 1 TFL
MSU is a pretty healthy team, but the secondary has been hit by injury -- within the last few weeks, the Bulldogs have lost both starting cornerback Will Redmond and safety Kendrick Market to season-ending injury. Of course, in their last game, they held Kentucky's Patrick Towles to 23-for-42 passing for just 218 yards and two picks.
Missouri took quite a few deep shots against Vanderbilt and very nearly connected on some (but ended up connecting on none). I'm curious what the Tigers will attempt in this one -- MSU seems content with allowing shorter passes but does a good job of converging on the deep throws.
I haven't gotten to see as much of MSU as I wanted to this year; I saw chunks of the LSU and Louisiana Tech games, but that's about it. So I have to generalize what I'm saying in this paragraph. But MSU's footprint -- iffy efficiency, no big plays allowed -- suggests the Bulldogs are playing a decent amount of zone this year. But from what we read after Vandy, we know that opponents have been swallowing Mizzou's young receivers with man coverage. I assume that will dictate how the Tigers attempt to attack here. Against zone, maybe you see more of the horizontal passing game that Drew Lock employed against South Carolina. Against man, he might look deep again since his guys won't be immediately open.
And hey, eventually almost-great long balls turn into great long balls, right? Right?
[one more sheepish look]
Westin Graves (6'0, 163, So.) -- 33-33 PAT, 5-6 FG under 40, 3-3 FG over 40
Devon Bell (6'2, 190, Sr.) -- 2-2 PAT, 0-1 FG over 40; 49 kickoffs, 21 touchbacks
Logan Cooke (6'5, 216, So.) -- 26 punts, 41.8 average (15 fair caught, 11 inside 20)
Devon Bell (6'2, 190, Sr.) -- 9 punts, 41.1 average (4 fair caught, 2 inside 20)
Brandon Holloway (5'8, 165, Jr.) -- 9 KR, 27.1 average (1 TD) (long: 100)
Gabe Myles (6'0, 192, So.) -- 2 KR, 22.0 average (long: 38)
Malik Dear (5'9, 220, Fr.) -- 3 KR, 18.7 average (long: 34)
Fred Ross (6'2, 207, Jr.) -- 11 PR, 10.5 average (1 TD) (long: 77)
Malik Dear (5'9, 220, Fr.) -- 1 PR, 7 yards
MSU's got itself a pretty good special teams unit. The Bulldogs rank 21st in Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency -- 10th in punt returns, 26th in field goal efficiency, 33rd in kickoff efficiency, 70th in punting, and 78th in kick returns. We know that Missouri games tend to be determined more by punts than kicks, though. Corey Fatony's focus might be more on kick height than distance; you probably don't want Fred Ross flipping the field with a nice return.
Full preview coming tomorrow. The bottom line with this matchup is that MSU will allow you some steady, short gains if you are able to take them. It's up to Missouri, though, to prove it can be counted on to take free yardage. It hasn't for weeks ... months, maybe.